Sermon for Easter 6 – Evensong & Benediction Sunday 21 May 2017
A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp at Evensong & Benediction on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 21 May 2017
Readings: Zechariah 8.1-13; Revelation 21. 22 – 22.5
Yesterday I was at a conference in Liverpool. The conference was called to look at the ministry and work of a priest who died a couple of years ago. He was well-known in this diocese and I suspect known to some of you. We were talking about Fr Kenneth Leech.
Brought up near Manchester, London became Fr Leech’s adopted home. He studied at King’s College, London. He was ordained in this diocese. He served his title in Hoxton. From 1967-1971, he was our neighbour here as Rector of St Anne’s, Soho. Then he returned to the East End as Rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green. And finally he joined the staff of St Botolph’s, Aldgate.
Fr Leech was a priest and an activist. In his late teens, he heard Fr Trevor Huddleston speak about the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The political left and the catholic faith beckoned him at the same time. The young Ken Leech was converted. He had no problem marrying Marxism and the Magisterium. His concern for those left out or pushed out by society lead him to set up projects that were ahead of their time.
He established Centrepoint, a charity for homeless young people while he was in Soho. It’s now the largest charity for that sector in the country. In Bethnal Green, he focused on racism. He became Director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank.
Priest, activist – and writer. Himself a voracious reader, Fr Leech published over 20 works during his lifetime. His two big books Soul Friend (on spiritual direction) and True God had a major impact on my generation. Contemplative prayer was the foundation of his life and work.
With Rowan Williams, he wrote Essays Catholic and Radical in 1983 to celebrate 150 years of the Oxford Moment. The Jubilee Group, a pressure group of like-minded clergy and laity was formed at the same time.
Fr Leech had a vast knowledge of the famous Anglo-Catholic characters of the early days. Perhaps his favourite was Fr Conrad Noel, Vicar of Thaxted from 1910 until his death in 1942.
Thaxted in North Essex is a sleepy place. It’s said that to this day in Thaxted, that time is measured to before or after the Battle of the Flags. Flags are a common sight in many Anglican churches. Regimental colours and other flags are hung in chancels and side chapels.
Fr Conrad Noel added to the list. First, he hung the flag of St George. This would cheer many an Essex Man today but not 100 years ago. The union flag, ‘yes’; the flag of St George, ‘no’; very anti-establishment. Then he hung the flag of Sinn Fein, the Irish Tricolour. That caused another ripple.
But the sky fell in when he hung the Hammer & Sickle. Students from Cambridge bussed in and caused a fracas. Questions were asked in parliament. An ecclesiastical court sat in judgement. The flags came down. Thereafter Fr Conrad Noel sought other wellsprings to embed the faith in North Essex finally settling on the noble art of Morris dancing for which Thaxted is famous to this day.
Hearing Fr Leech talking about Fr Conrad Noel was always a riot – but in a good way. But behind the eccentricity of it all there was serious intent. What do we stand for as catholic Christians? For Fr Leech, key to his understanding of faith and church is that we are here to transform the structures of society. Soul-making goes hand in hand with community-building.
The purpose of yesterday’s conference wasn’t just to reminisce it was also to look at his legacy. Is there one? Some might say ‘not much’. 200 tickets went on sale. 60 people (mainly over 60) turned up. There was fine input from the speakers including the Bishop of Liverpool but few it seems want to listen.
Why is that? One answer is that the political left is divided and the catholic movement is in retreat. Another answer is that politics and the church both depend on people showing up – be it for meetings, rallies or worship. Regular commitment is in short supply these days.
Fr Leech was born in 1939. He was part of a world where people got together shoulder to shoulder. That world was already in decline when he was ordained but he still thought that it would come back. Political parties, trades unions and churches would grow their memberships again.
Politics local and national with church local and national could shape society so that heaven is realised (‘made real’) on earth. The mass celebrated by people and priest is an earnest of what will be disclosed fully at the end of time: ‘the weekly meeting of rebels against a mammon-worshipping society’, as another of his heroes, Fr Stewart Headlam used to say a century ago.
It’s not that such an approach is false; the problem now is that it’s harder to achieve. It has less resonance. A world in which power is not about corporate membership but corporates; a world where most people spend more time looking at their screens instead of what’s around them; a world in which we are principally consumers not citizens all adds up to people being disengaged from the public realm.
The danger is and it’s a very real danger that if we see ourselves solely as private individuals we’ll fall prey to the demagogues who seek not simply to rule us but exploit us. We cease to be citizens. We will also cease to be consumers. We become mere supplicants.
Living together in a way that reflects the glory of God is one of the great scriptural themes. This evening, Zechariah looked beyond the miseries of exile to a restored Jerusalem where the old folk hang out in the street while the children play. St John the Divine’s New Jerusalem is a city that has no enemies. The gates are open by day so that people can move freely in and out.
The Christian tradition has a doctrine of God that is both communal and individual: Three Persons and One God. It straddles the fault-line of modernity. At its worst, our faith can be harnessed in the service of most ideologies. At its best, it offers a transcendent and inspiring vision.
Fr Leech said that he thought that the fracture in the church was not between high and low, catholic and protestant but between those who think that Christians should be involved in the transformation of the structures of society and those who think that they shouldn’t.
Today, there are those who argue that the split in our society is not between left and right but between the ‘somewhere’ people and the ‘anywhere’ people. ‘Somewhere’ people are rooted in a particular place and culture. They view change as a threat. ‘Anywhere’ people see themselves as citizens of the world for whom crossing borders is an adventure. In the world of Brexit and Trump it looks like the ‘somewhere’ people are in the ascendant.
If Fr Leech were here today where would he stand? As a community theologian, he would have sympathies with the ‘somewhere’ people but as someone who happily sang The Red Flag he would also have understood the ‘anywhere’ people’.
But more than that as a priest of the church universal he believed that God the Sacred Trinity is omnipresent and that it is the task of Christians and their churches to draw back the veil, reveal that truth and cauterise the structures that bleed the life out of human beings.
Fr Leech would call us beyond the somewhere and the anywhere to the ‘Everywhere’ – God himself. This is no simple piety. The Everywhere loves the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ but first and foremost God seeks out those who are ‘nowhere’.
Fr Leech’s enduring legacy is of a priest who gazed upwards and contemplated the Trinity. Then he walked our streets and saw the image of Christ especially in the faces of people that others ignored or shunned. He got to know people; he asked questions; analysed the issues; found practical answers for his time. The challenge for us is to do the same.